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Life as a Novel

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Forster conducted his life as if everyone lived in a novel, with the rich inner life of characters’ motives and feelings operating as the rules of the world. Every occasion was carefully observed, and even the most clear-cut matters subject to interpretation. His excessive insight made him seem hopeless about practicalities. One friend called him a “dreamer” and counseled that he should “face facts.” Morgan responded precisely: “It’s impossible to face facts. They’re like the walls of a room, all round you. If you face one wall, you must have your back to the other three.” His hyperprecision sometimes savored of the absurd: once when asked if it was raining, Forster slowly walked to the window and replied, “I will try to decide.”

The previous July, just after he arrived at King’s for his residency, Lancaster found himself alone in an octagonal room where a tiny black-and-white television had been installed on a tea cart before the fireplace as a begrudging acknowledgment of the wider world. Next door was the Fellows’ Senior Combination Room, on whose claret-colored walls the portraits of great Kingsmen—all friends of Morgan, all dead—gazed down: Rupert Brooke, a Roger Fry self-portrait, Duncan Grant’s painting of Maynard Keynes. In contrast, the little room had barely enough room for two armchairs and a couple of vitrines stuffed with ancient pottery that flanked the Gothic window. It was a nondescript time in the midmorning, and the BBC was broadcasting coverage of the first moon landing. Decades later, Lancaster still remembered the scene clearly. Morgan “shuffled in, asked me what it was, settled down to watch” on the armchair beside him. He leaned forward conspiratorially toward Mark. “I’m not sure they should be doing that,” he said quietly.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the cold war fueled anxiety about the loyalty and patriotism of homosexuals, and the machinery of the state was being used to gather evidence and entrap gay men.

When Christopher first met Morgan in September 1932, he was already yearning to be his “disciple.” Here was a gay mentor, a novelist who had found “the key to the whole art of writing.” Christopher admired Morgan’s technical skill, but he was awed by his humility. He reminded Christopher of a Zen master. For his part, Forster was attracted to the courage and clarity of the young man’s writing. The Memorial had caught his eye. It was published by his old friends the Woolfs, and came recommended by a congenial new friend, William Plomer, whose novel Sado centered on a homoerotic affair between an expatriate (much like Plomer) and a Japanese boy. The Woolfs had published Sado, too.

The Memorial was subtitled “Portrait of a Family” but Christopher’s working title had been “War and Peace.” Charting the wreckage of the Great War through the story of an upper-middle-class English family was precariously close to autobiography for Christopher. His father had been killed at Ypres in 1915 when the boy was only ten. All his life Christopher deeply resented his widowed mother’s psychic sway over him. But the dark character at the center of the novel resembled Christopher only slightly. Edward Blake was a galvanic creation: homosexual, bitterly funny, miserable, shell-shocked, a veteran of the war. In one scene, told from Edward’s point of view, he puts the muzzle of a gun into his mouth, pulls the trigger—and botches the suicide. The novel’s voice was a perfect blend of the attitude of the postwar generation: arresting, grim, and sardonic. Christopher’s writing was so lucid and matter-of-fact that people mistook it for journalism all his life.

He was masterful at writing about sex. The young people are refreshingly irreverent about this solemn subject. Edward proposes to sleep with Margaret, his putative girlfriend, by invoking “our duty to our neighbours.” Margaret complies, laughingly threatening him: “To think, Edward—I might cure you.”

“And so, one evening at the studio, after a particularly hectic party, they’d started—and it had been really very funny and not the least disgusting—but quite hopeless. They sat up in bed and laughed and laughed. “Oh Edward!” laughed Margaret—for she was pretty tight, too—“I shall never be able to sleep with a man again. At the critical moment I shall always think of you.”... “I might return the compliment,” said Edward.”

In the final scene of the novel, Edward Blake finds the place where he belongs: in Berlin, in bed with a venal if seductive German boy.

Anticipating his first meeting with Morgan, Christopher wrote Stephen Spender half-jokingly, “I shall spend the entire morning making up.” Not that he put on mascara. Rather, he polished his most precious currency: tantalizing tales of the boy bars in Berlin. And he had stories to tell of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and his Institute for Sexual Science, with its museum crammed with sex toys and fantasy pictures. Hirschfeld came straight out of Central Casting for the figure of a German scientist; he was a “silly solemn old professor with [a] doggy mustache” and thick glasses. He lived over the shop with Karl Giese, his secretary and lover. There was something poignant and defiant about Hirschfeld’s resolute belief that sex was a legitimate object of study, and he had paid a price for his public campaign to decriminalize consensual sex between men. Twice he had been badly beaten in the street by Nazi thugs. To Christopher, Berlin was a place where there was no pretense to the “duty” of heterosexual affections. By going to Germany he thought he had escaped the hypocrisy, the puritanism, the portentous respectability of the prison he called England.

They met in the Brunswick Square flat that Morgan had rented a few years before as an occasional escape from the suburban surveillance of his mother. It was a plain set of rooms in a rather shabby Victorian row house. On the sitting-room wall hung a talisman of Morgan’s friendship with the exotic and dashing T. E. Lawrence—an original illustration of an Arab boy, knife unsheathed, which had been commissioned for the privately printed edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Christopher was so bowled over that he barely recalled their conversation. But the pleasurable sense of being invited into the circle of the elect was palpable. In a special token of intimacy, Forster lent Isherwood the precious copy of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom given to him by Lawrence himself. The book was a brilliant record of Lawrence’s campaign in the Middle East just after the war. The story of his disguising himself to fight alongside the Arabs was so colorful that some readers thought it was an Orientalist fantasy. It was by turns heroic and harrowing. In one horrifying scene, Lawrence describes his rape and torture as a prisoner of the Turks in Deraa. Christopher left the flat “clasping this magic volume,” aglow with excitement and awe.

If Christopher wanted to be a disciple, Morgan equally found himself in need of one just then. For him it was an especially vulnerable moment. His “lover and beloved,” Bob Buckingham, had recently married, and Morgan was just beginning to reconcile himself painfully to the fact. Meeting these new young friends, these gay intellectuals and writers, was a partial salve. He needed companionship, frank talk, and laughter, not sex. Expanding the circle of confidants and friends was a characteristic means for him to move past an emotional bottleneck.

Six months after his first meeting with Morgan, Christopher returned to London as the world of Berlin collapsed in ruins around him. The recently elected Nazi government was making a show of cleaning up vice, shutting down the boy bars and arresting gay men in roundups. Virulent mobs smashed windows and set fire to Hirschfeld’s institute, forcing him and Giese to flee. Christopher recognized that Germany was no longer the haven he once imagined it could be. Some homosexuals he knew had declared themselves Nazi sympathizers, believing it would protect them, but Christopher lamented the tragedy of “self-deceivers.” His burning concern was how to find a way for his lover, Heinz Neddermeyer, whom he had left behind, to escape to some shared safety.

On this second visit, in a gesture that became a ritual of intimacy, Morgan showed Christopher the typescript of Maurice. Like John Lehmann and Christopher almost forty years later, Morgan and Christopher sat side by side in the Brunswick Square boîte with the precious draft between them. What did he think, Morgan wanted to know? The master appealed to the pupil, and the pupil was overwhelmed. The truth was that to the younger man’s ear, Morgan’s writing about sex sounded “antique” and prudish. The scene when Maurice announces that he’s slept with Alec made him cringe with embarrassment. Morgan had concocted a ridiculous euphemism for making love—the word sharing.

“I have shared with Alec,” [Maurice] said after deep thought.

“Shared what?”

“All I have. Which includes my body.”

But the novel’s occasional solecisms were almost beside the point. Morgan came from a different time. The man who had penned the word sharing could hardly be expected to call himself gay. Morgan’s lifelong resistance to labeling had nothing to do with caution or cowardice. Whatever its locutions, Maurice was passionate and honest. Christopher was moved by the thought of Morgan so brave and alone, “imprisoned within the jungle of pre-war prejudice, putting these unthinkable thoughts into words.” He understood that being shown the novel was Morgan’s expression of a quasi-paternal connection with a gay man from the thirties generation. Morgan struck Christopher as immensely lonely, and Morgan was sensitive that the novel had lived in the hothouse for too long. Apprehensively, he asked Christopher: “Does it date?” Christopher’s response was a perfect blend of compassion and honesty. “Why shouldn’t it date?” he replied stoutly. “Eyes brimming with tears,” the young acolyte told Morgan that he admired the novel profoundly, that it was pioneering work, that he thought it was wonderful and brave. Hearing this, Forster leaned forward and gently kissed Christopher on the cheek. The moment cemented their friendship for life.

But acquiescing to Christopher’s desire that the novel should be published was another matter altogether. Here it was impossible to distinguish Morgan’s self-protectiveness from timidity. Christopher hammered away all summer long, in letters from abroad. Heinz had tried unsuccessfully to enter England, ostensibly to work for Christopher as a domestic servant, but he was interrogated at Harwich and deported. Auden, who was a witness to the event, guessed that the malevolent customs officer, a “bright-eyed little rat,” was “one of us.” So Christopher left England, “committed to wandering the world until he found somewhere they could both settle, unharried by immigration checks and customs officials.” For a time, that place was the Canary Islands.

Morgan’s letters to Christopher in this warm paradise led Morgan to speculate on his fictional lovers as if they were real people living in the world. Confiding in the young man, Morgan ruminated on the question, still quite raw after Bob’s marriage, of what he could expect in the way of fidelity and intimacy. He cast the discussion in terms of strategies to revise the novel, but the idea was clearly a proxy for his own emotional state.

“I think what might happen is a permanent relationship, but with all sorts of vagaries, fears, illnesses, distraction, fraying out at its edges, and this would take a long time to represent. One may shorten it, perhaps, if one made them take a vow, and Maurice could take it, but I doubt about Alec, as about myself. We are, both of us, more likely to look back and realise that we have, after all, sacrificed enough to bring the thing off.”

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E. M. Forster's experiences epitomise those of the closeted homosexual. He could be the walking definition of the man with the Victorian upbringing who inhabits a dual existence.
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